In the South Choir Aisle of Canterbury Cathedral is the tomb of 15th century Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Chichele. It is an example of what is rather pleasantly called a Cadaver Tomb. It was made in his lifetime and shows the Archbishop on the tomb dressed rather like Archbishop Bernard today, in the robes of a bishop, but underneath in a sort of bunk bed arrangement is the Archbishop in death, his body rotting. It was, of course, intended as an allegory about how we are all going to end up and a reminder of how transient earthly glory is.
St Augustine of Hippo was perhaps mediating on the same truth; the fact he was a bishop did not make him any better or any nearer God than other Christian when he wrote:
The Lord as he thought fit and not according to my own merits, appointed me to this position….and I exhibit two distinct features; firstly that I am a Christian and secondly that I am a bishop for others. The fact that I am a Christian is for my benefit, that I am appointed bishop is for yours. With you I am a Christian and for you I am a bishop’.
We all began our Christian lives at the same place, the baptismal font. Our baptism is the most important date in our Christian life; it is our spiritual birthday, a new birth bringing us into contact with Christ’s redeeming love. Through baptism we are caught up in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection and become his disciples, entering a new way of life in company with Jesus. Every baptized person has a contribution to make to the building up of the body of Christ as St Paul makes clear in our second reading (1Cor 12:3-7; 12-13). Through baptism and confirmation the Spirit has been given to each person for a good purpose.
But within the baptized people of God some are called to further ministry and service through ordination. To take up St Augustine’s words, indeed with you we are Christians but for you we are bishops, priests and deacons.
Ordination can never be simply for ourselves, we are ordained for the Church, for service to God and our brothers and sisters in the faith. For that reason we cannot speak of ‘our priesthood’. It is the priesthood of Christ that matters in which those who are ordained have a particular share. Indeed it is Christ who calls and it is a calling to share in and continue his mission in the world. The words of Jesus on the first Easter evening in today’s gospel make that clear: As the Father has sent me so am I sending you (John 20: 19-23)
This afternoon the eight of you will be ordained to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. You have been called by Christ – a truth you must never forget – and that calling has been ratified by the Church. There is for you all both a sense of continuity and of change. There is continuity because that call to Christian ministry first came to you some years ago, in some cases many years ago. You have many years of faithful service and experience to bring with you but you will also be aware that your ministry in the future will be set in a totally new context as priest of the Catholic Church. Your ordination today will be a fulfillment and completion of all that has gone before but it will also be radically different as you will exercise that ministry of word and sacrament from the heart of the Church in communion with the successor of Peter, whom Pope Benedict reminded us in his homily at Westminster Abbey ‘is charged with a particular care for the Unity of Christ’s flock’.
First and foremost then you are to be ordained a priest of the Catholic Church. What happens to you today will give you a new authentic authority to your ministry. You will discover in the words of Lumen Gentium that ‘There can be no genuine priestly ministry except in communion with the Supreme Pontiff’ and you will share that priestly ministry with every other priest of the Catholic Church. One of the most moving parts of the Ordination Rite is the giving of the Kiss of peace by your brother priests which profoundly expresses the unity of the priesthood in the Catholic Church.
Though you are ordained for the whole Church, you will also be priests within the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. You have all been involved in a spiritual journey, certainly over the last year and probably for much longer than that. It has been a journey not without its difficulties. Archbishop Bernard will remind you in a short time to ‘model your life on the mystery of the cross’. These are profound and penetrating words, particularly significant for those of us who in our Anglican days were members of the Society of the Holy Cross. As you look back over the years I am sure you will see the providence of God at work in your lives and that he has brought you now to this joyful moment.
As some of the first priests of Our Lady’s Ordinariate you have that special responsibility to help bring to fruition that vision which the Holy Father sets out in the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus and which he described at Oscott College last September:
As a prophetic gesture that can contribute positively to the developing relations between Anglicans and Catholics. It helps us to set our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion in the context of which the mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies serves as an enrichment to us all.’
However, we will do that with humility knowing how much we will be receiving.
You will be only too well aware that you are frail earthen vessels entrusted with this ministry by Christ and his Church. ‘A priest’, wrote the late Cardinal Hume in his book Light in the Lord, ‘is an ordinary man called to an extraordinary ministry. Like everyone else he is himself in search for God and in need of redemption’.
You know all ministry is service and when you kneel down and follow the example of the Saviour in washing feet on Maundy Thursday, you will be aware that simple act seems to sum up what our priesthood should look like, and yet reminds us how far from Jesus’ example we fall short. Indeed how far we fall short of our own expectations, never mind those of other people.
But St Paul has words of encouragement for us when he writes to Timothy and reminds us that it is God ‘who has saved us and called us to be holy- not because of anything we ourselves have done but for his own purpose and his own grace.’ (Tim 1)
In today’s gospel, Jesus gives the Apostles a task; a task which is being passed on to you: as the father sent me so am I sending you. But he does not leave them unaided; he breathes on them and says ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.
There is the mistake we all so often make, in relying on ourselves instead of reminding ourselves that God has called us and only his grace alone is sufficient. Or, as St Paul says in his second Epistle to the Corinthians, ‘We are only the earthenware jars that hold this treasure, to make it clear that such overwhelming power comes from God and not from us’. (2 Cor 4:7).
May God bless you as you serve him as priests of the Catholic Church.